Ahead of U.S. election, Facebook gives users some control over how they see political ads

By Katie Paul

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Thursday it was making some changes to its approach to political ads, including allowing users to turn off certain ad-targeting tools, but the updates stop far short of critics’ demands and what rival companies have pledged to do.

The world’s biggest social network has vowed to curb political manipulation of its platform, after failing to counter alleged Russian interference and the misuse of user data by defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica in 2016.

But ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, Facebook is struggling to quell criticism of its relatively hands-off ads policies. In particular it has come under fire after it exempted politicians’ ads from fact-checking standards applied to other content on its network.

Facebook said that in addition to rolling out a tool enabling individual users to choose to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram, it will also make more ad audience data publicly available.

In contrast, Twitter Inc banned political ads in October, while Alphabet Inc’s Google said it would stop letting advertisers target election ads using data such as public voter records and general political affiliations.

Other online platforms like Spotify, Pinterest and TikTok have also issued bans.

In a blog post, Facebook’s director of product management Rob Leathern said the company considered imposing limits like Google’s, but decided against them as internal data indicated most ads run by U.S. presidential candidates are broadly targeted, at audiences larger than 250,000 people.

“We have based (our policies) on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all,” Leathern wrote.

The expanded ad audience data features will be rolled out in the first quarter of this year and Facebook plans to deploy the political ads control starting in the United States early this summer, eventually expanding this preference to more locations.


Another change will be to allow users to choose to stop seeing ads based on an advertiser’s “Custom Audience” and that will apply to all types of advertising, not only political ads.

The “Custom Audiences” feature lets advertisers upload lists of personal data they maintain, like email addresses and phone numbers. Facebook then matches that information to user accounts and shows the advertiser’s content to those people.

However, Facebook will not give users a blanket option to turn off the feature, meaning they will have to opt out of seeing ads for each advertiser one by one, a spokesman told Reuters.

The change will also not affect ad targeting via Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences tool, which uses the same uploads of personal data to direct ads at people with similar characteristics to those on the lists, the spokesman said.

Leathern said in the post the company would make new information publicly available about the audience size of political ads in the company’s Ad Library, showing approximately how many people the advertisers aimed to reach.

The changes follow a New York Times report this week of an internal memo by senior Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, who told employees the company had a duty not to tilt the scales against U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

Bosworth, a close confidant of Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg who subsequently made his post public, wrote that he believed Facebook was responsible for Trump’s election in 2016, but not because of misinformation or Trump’s work with Cambridge Analytica.

Rather, he said, the Trump campaign used Facebook’s advertising tools most effectively.

(Reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

U.S. Muslim school curriculum: English, math and political activism

muslim school teaching kids political activism

By Scott Malone

MANSFIELD, Mass. (Reuters) – The students at Al-Noor Academy, a Muslim school outside Boston, bombarded their government class speaker with questions: How do you start a political discussion? How do you use social media in politics? And how do you influence elected leaders?

The group of mostly 16-year-olds was too young to vote but seemed eager to find ways to counter the rhetoric of President Donald Trump who last week issued travel restrictions to the United States by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

“Before this election happened, I really didn’t know much about politics at all,” said Sarah Sendian, a sophomore student at the school in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “With the new president and all of the things that are happening, it sparked a lot of interest in a lot of young people.”

The class is one of the first actions of newly formed Muslim political organization Jetpac – standing for Justice, Education, Technology, Policy Advocacy Center – to encourage political activism among the 3.3 million Muslims who make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population.

“This is the time when Muslims should step forward,” said Nadeem Mazen, the group’s founder and a city councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “What’s going on at the national level only emphasizes what we’ve known prior to Trump being elected, and it’s that we need really good leaders.”

Thursday’s lesson at the 116-student junior and senior high school was heavy on how to build networks of like-minded people and turn them out at public meetings, rallies and elections to amplify the voices of U.S. Muslims.

About 824,000 of them were registered to vote as of 2016, a figure that had risen by about 60 percent over the past four years, according to national Muslim advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations.


The class’s teacher, Joe Florencio, reminded his students that generations of immigrant populations have gone through the same process of becoming politically active.

“To be effective politically, you have to know what you’re doing,” said Florencio, the sole non-Muslim faculty member in a building that once housed the Roman Catholic church where his parents were married.

Students at the school, founded in 2000, study both standard U.S. academic subjects including science and math as well as Arabic and the Koran, a model similar to the many parochial schools in the northeastern United States.

Jetpac, which hopes to eventually offer versions of the class to private and public schools across the United States, faces an uphill climb. The number of anti-Muslim attacks reported to the FBI last year spiked to their highest level since 2001, the year that al Qaeda-backed hijackers destroyed New York’s World Trade Center.

While the group acknowledged that it will take time for political newcomers to win elections, even the act of campaigning could help Muslims, simply by making people more familiar with politics, said Faiza Patel, of the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“It allows them to meet lots of people, people that they might not otherwise meet and that has the effect of reducing prejudice,” said Patel, who studies interactions between Muslims and the U.S. justice system. “You start to see people as human beings.”

Almost half of respondents to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll said they believed that at least some U.S. Muslims harbored anti-American views, but respondents who knew a Muslim personally were less likely to believe that than ones who did not.

Yousef Abouallaban, a member of the Al-Noor school committee whose two eldest sons have attended the school, said he hoped the class would help the children of Muslim immigrants overcome a bias held by some of their parents against getting involved with politics.

“We were raised in a different culture where our belief is that people who get involved in government are corrupt people. At all levels. So if you are a decent person, you should never get involved in politics,” said Abouallaban, who immigrated from Syria in 1989. “That’s not the case in the United States and this mentality has to be changed.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Rigby)

Russia has ‘playbook’ for covert influence in Eastern Europe: study

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shake hands during a joint news conference following their talks at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia,

By John Walcott and Warren Strobel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia has mounted a campaign of covert economic and political measures to manipulate five countries in central and eastern Europe, discredit the West’s liberal democratic model, and undermine trans-Atlantic ties, a report by a private U.S. research group said.

The report released on Thursday said Moscow had co-opted sympathetic politicians, strived to dominate energy markets and other economic sectors, and undermined anti-corruption measures in an attempt to gain sway over governments in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, and Slovakia.

“In certain countries, Russian influence has become so pervasive and endemic that it has challenged national stability as well as a country’s Western orientation and Euro-Atlantic stability,” said the report of a 16-month study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the Sofia, Bulgaria-based Center for the Study of Democracy.

The publication of “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Eastern and Central Europe” coincides with an unprecedented debate in the United States over whether Russia is attempting to interfere in the Nov. 8 presidential election with cyber attacks and the release of emails from the campaign of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

The former U.S. Secretary of State’s campaign has said the Kremlin is trying to help Republican Donald Trump win the White House.

On Friday, the U.S. government for the first time formally accused Russia of hacking Democratic Party organizations. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday rejected allegations of meddling in the election.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the report. On Sunday, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV the United States was increasing its hostility toward Moscow.

Lavrov complained that NATO had been steadily moving military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders with Eastern European countries and criticized  sanctions imposed over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.

A former U.S. State Department official is the report’s lead author and U.S. officials said they concur with the findings on Russia’s involvement in Eastern Europe.

“The Russians have been engaged in a sustained campaign to recapture what Putin considers their rightful buffer in Eastern Europe, and to undermine not just NATO and the EU, but the entire democratic foundation of both institutions,” said a U.S. official who has studied Russian behavior since before the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

The official requested anonymity because, he said, the White House has ordered officials not to publicly discuss hostile Russian activities.

Those activities, he said, include bribery, propaganda, disinformation, “the occasional” assassination of Kremlin critics at home or abroad, and now using the internet to undermine opponents and weaken Western institutions.

“The Kremlin Playbook” cites a series of Russian efforts to expand its writ in central and eastern Europe.

They range from “megadeal” projects such as the 12.2 billion euro contract to build two new nuclear reactors in Hungary, awarded to Russia under opaque terms, to the cultivation of pro-Russian businessmen who gain political office and then shield Moscow’s interests, it said.

In Bulgaria, Russia’s economic presence is so strong, averaging 22 percent of GDP between 2005 and 2014, “that the country is at high risk of Russian-influenced state capture,” the report said.

Heather Conley, the former U.S. official and lead author of the report, said in an interview that the study was intended to highlight a challenge that has received insufficient attention from American and European policymakers.

“The first step is to acknowledge that which is happening,” said Conley. “What is at stake here is how we view ourselves and the functioning of our democracy.”

The report proposes measures to curb what it calls an “unvirtuous cycle” of covert Russian influence. They include more focus on illicit financial flows and revamping U.S. assistance programs to stress strengthening governance and combating Russian influence.

It is not the only study this year to highlight Russia’s measures in the region.

“Russia has opened a new political front within Europe by supporting the far right against the liberal European Union,” the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, a British Army research group, said in February.

Governments such as those in Hungary and Greece “openly sympathize” with Putin, it said. “The result is that there is a substantial ‘fifth column’ in western and central Europe which weakens our response to Russian aggression.”

(Editing by Grant McCool)